Cantor pushes China to open historic synagogue

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is pressing the Chinese government to reopen a historic synagogue in Shanghai.

In an interview with The Hill, Cantor said he’s requested a meeting with China’s ambassador to the United States to discuss the issue and expects to talk to him soon.

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Cantor, the highest-ranking elected Jewish official in U.S. history, took a guided tour of the historic Ohel Rachel Synagogue in late April during a congressional trip with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and seven other lawmakers to China, Japan and South Korea.

It was Cantor’s first trip to China, a visit that gave him a first-hand look at that country’s handling of minority religions such as Judaism, which is not officially recognized by the government. The group was only the second congressional delegation from the U.S. to visit Shanghai since 2010.

The guided tour of Ohel Rachel was given by one of the rabbis in Shanghai. Cantor said Chinese officials also accompanied him during the visit.

“What they would like is the ability to use the synagogue on a regular basis,” he said of the small Jewish community in Shanghai.

Though today only a few thousand of Shanghai’s 24 million people practice Judaism, the religion has a long history in the city.

Sephardic Jews built the Ohel Rachel Synagogue in the late 19th century, at a time when Shanghai was home to tens of thousands of Jews. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, at least 25,000 Jews fled Europe for sanctuary in Shanghai, which took them in at a time when many other countries were turning away Jewish refugees. A number of active synagogues existed in Shanghai during this period.

After World War II, many Jews left Shanghai and the Ohel Rachel Synagogue fell into disuse under communist rule.

The synagogue now hosts the Shanghai Education Commission, complicating efforts to turn it back into a functioning place of worship. For a time, the synagogue was used as a warehouse by the commission.

The Ohel Rachel was reopened briefly in 2010 when Shanghai hosted the world’s fair, but was closed again when the fair ended and is now only used for religions ceremonies on the High Holy Days. In 2002, it was placed on the World Monument Fund’s list of endangered historic structures.

Cantor pressed Chinese officials to reopen the synagogue during his visit and said he hoped to continue his push during a meeting later this month with Chinese Ambassador Zhang Yesui.

“I raised it with the Chinese officials in depth and intend to raise it with the ambassador in the U.S.,” he said.

The closed synagogue is a reminder of the lack of religious freedom in China, he said, even for the small, mostly Western population of Jews in Shanghai.

Reopening the synagogue for regular services is “about religious freedom,” Cantor said.

While it is much easier to practice Judaism, Christianity and other religions in China today than it was decades ago, several limits remain in place.

While China’s constitution says its citizens may enjoy “freedom of religious belief,” only the five officially recognized “patriotic religious associations” are permitted to legally hold worship services. Those associations are Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Protestant, according to the State Department’s annual report on international religious freedom.

The government emphasizes state control over religion and Chinese citizens are forbidden from attending services in foreign-run churches.

Cantor noted the case of Catholic bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin, who has been under house arrest in Shanghai since 2012 for speaking out against restrictions on religion.

Though Roman Catholicism is recognized by Beijing, the church in China is under the control of the government and not Vatican City. The Chinese government installed Daqin as the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai in a move sanctioned by the Vatican, but he then resigned from the Catholic Patriotic Association. The move, which suggested Daqin would follow Rome and not Beijing, led to his house arrest, the State Department report said.

While Cantor visited the Ohel Rachel, other members of the delegation visited the Bishops Cathedral of Shanghai.

The delegation also included Reps. Pat Meehan (R-Pa.), Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), Kay Granger (R-Texas), Kristi Noem (R-S.D.), Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), Paul Cook (R-Calif.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

See photos from Cantor's trip, here.